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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Border Control Barrier to EU Hopes

FRANKFURT ON ODER/SLUBICE BORDER, Poland — The burly Estonian truck driver looks on calmly as German customs officers hack chunks of his consignment of butter into plastic bags for forensic tests.

The officers at Frankfurt on Oder, the European Union’s biggest border post with Poland and a major hub for international organized crime, can smell fraud and, on this occasion, they turn out to be right.

The discovery of falsely labeled butter at the EU’s current eastern border highlights just one example of what the bloc is up against as it fights highly organized crime rings, which deal in everything from drugs to weapons and counterfeit compact discs and designer clothes.

It also highlights the enormous challenge faced by 10 former communist bloc countries seeking EU membership in plugging their own porous border controls before joining.

Destined for the 15-nation EU market, the butter is falsely marked as originating in Estonia, a Baltic candidate for EU membership that enjoys lower import duties under a preferential trade deal with the EU.

Forensic tests show that the butter was not produced in Estonia at all, but in the EU itself. That suggests that it was exported to the Baltic state with the help of generous EU export subsidies.

Repacked in Estonia, the butter is then sent back to the EU, raising suspicions that the same butter has made the same journey again and again, before being intercepted.

As customs officials fork the butter into sealed bags, they joke that they would not be surprised to find underneath some of the millions of cigarettes smuggled into the EU via the border point from Lithuania and Russia every year.

With its 24-hour controls, highly trained personnel and state of the art equipment, the Frankfurt on Oder border point boasts success in fighting the cigarette smuggling, saving millions of Deutsche marks in tax damage, said customs office spokesman Wilfried G?tz.

Customs officials seized 124 million cigarettes last year and 85 million in the first half of this year, hidden under everything from cranberries to wooden furniture, steel and frozen vegetables.

But for everything they catch, much more gets away, the customs admits, draining millions of dollars in lost tax revenues.

"The problem is that we have the biggest border control at the German-Polish border — with 1,800 trucks a day. That means we can only search at random," G?tz said. "We need two hours for one truck. In the meantime 50 trucks can go by."

Self-confident truck drivers play cat and mouse with the customs authorities, keeping a step ahead by changing tack every time officers spot a pattern that can help them narrow down their random search.

G?tz said that lax controls at Poland’s borders with Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states were fueling Germany’s problem, raising questions about its readiness for EU entry.

"We see that this new eastern border is not being controlled so well. They must control their border better," G?tz said.

Poland is negotiating entry terms along with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Romania and Bulgaria.

Ironically Poland, the biggest candidate for membership, will eventually, as the EU’s outer border, take over many of the tasks carried out by Germany, and that worries the EU.

The state of the eastern candidates’ border controls is one of the EU’s biggest concerns in its entry talks, not least because it knows public fears over increased organized crime could undermine the expansion process.

The EU says the former communist countries — some of which did not even exist in their own right 10 years ago — need to clamp down on forged documents and invest heavily in trained staff and top technology.

It is also concerned that the EU’s fight against crime and illegal immigration will be undermined by poorly paid eastern border guards, who are open to bribes.

Poland, anxious to be one of the first eastern countries to join, says it is trying to meet the EU’s concerns.

"We are taking measures to tighten border controls. Last year we underwent several structural changes," said Jacek Kapica, the head of Poland’s central customs office.

He said Poland had taken steps to prevent border guards taking bribes, dividing checks between several individuals. While one guard performed the passport check, another would check other documents and another the goods.

A Polish customs officer never knew what he would be doing on a particular day, he said, to prevent firms setting up corrupt arrangements with them in advance. Warsaw had also set up a database of firms involved in smuggling, he said.